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Neurodiversity: Researchers Seek Strengths in Student Differences

Research emerging on neurological differences in students identified for special education—from attention deficits to autism to other conditions—may soon lead to a sea change in the way educators look at students identified for special education.

Thomas Armstrong, executive director of American Institute for Learning and Human Development, makes a passionate argument in our commentary section in favor of finding and leveraging students' strengths. Current special education, he argues, relies on a medical model focused on symptoms and disease rather than normal healthy variations:

"It would be absurd to say that a calla lily has "petal-deficit disorder," or that a person from Holland suffers from "altitude-deprivation syndrome," he says. "The fact is, we appreciate the flower for its intrinsic beauty and value citizens of the Netherlands for their unique landscape. So, too, we should celebrate the differences in students who have been labeled "learning disabled," 'autistic,' 'ADD/ADHD,' 'intellectually disabled,' 'emotionally and behaviorally disordered,' or who have been given other neurologically based diagnoses. We ought to appreciate these kids for who they really are and not dwell upon who they have failed to become.

Last May, Alan Guttmacher, the director of the National Institute for Child Health and Human Development, called for prioritizing research on the potential strengths of children with different neurological profiles, but I haven't seen a lot of new grants in this area (Readers, have you seen new programs focused on this topic?) Identifying students' strengths and needs, rather than simply defining their deficits, may be particularly critical for the more than 300,000 students nationwide identified as "twice exceptional," both gifted and with a disability.

If you want to find out more about neurodiversity in the classroom, my colleague Liana Heitin of Education Week Teacher will be holding a Web chat, "Understanding Neurodiversity to Build a Strengths-Based Classroom," with Mr. Armstrong at 4 p.m. I'm interested to see how this concept would change the way teachers approach differentiating instruction.

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